Stop Fighting Rewriting

October 15, 2017

Keegon Schuett, author of Slow, Kitty Steals a Dog, Brace Yourself and Count Spatula, discusses the rewriting process and why it's important.

A lot of writers will tell you that writing is rewriting, but so many of us want to fight the process. So I thought it'd be helpful to outline a few of my methods, as well as some personal experiences with rewriting.

Rewriting is an exercise, and like exercising your body, it can be painful and uncomfortable, but at the end of that process both you and your play will be stronger. It's easy to feel fatigue after finishing a draft, but it's just the start of the fight. You threw those first big punches, the crazy ideas. You wrestled with who the characters are. You kicked your doubts aside and wrote something.

When I finished my first play, Slow, it was entirely different. It was an abstract, goofy piece about what happens in a teenage girl's head while she dreams. She met a talking cow, hung out with Emily Dickinson and pondered life in general from the surface of Pluto. I got a director interested and we moved forward with a production. Once I heard it out loud, it was clear that the play was all over the place. I had to take off my fighting gloves, sit down, and put on my rewriting gloves.

I asked myself what stood out from the first draft, and to me, it was the idea of how relationships can move fast and how scary that is to a girl who likes to view the world from behind her camera. I took the abstract and translated it into something more literal.

I really loved that first draft. It was fun, but meandering. My first draft of Slow felt more like a brainstorm brawl. I wanted this script to be able to fend for itself out in the world. So I went through the play and jabbed at the weak spots. I punched up what I could. I tackled its fragile lines. I beefed up the characters and streamlined it into a whole new play.

Elements from all the outlandish first draft scenes found their way into the final play, and when the dust settled, those elements seemed way more meaningful. It was more interesting to hear Lizzy admit how she felt about Pluto no longer being a planet than to joke around on the planet's surface.

Let other people read it

You're not going to like everything that people say about your play. That's a given. Especially when it's brand new and awkward—like a baby wearing a diaper with stage directions scribbled on them.
Have people tell you what they enjoyed and prepare some questions for them. If you have doubts about something, ask how they responded to those things.

If they say something you don't agree with, don't get defensive. People don't criticize aspects of a new play to criticize you personally. I've gotten notes from friends that I didn't agree with, but I believe that even if you get bad notes, there's always a kernel of truth you can benefit from.
In my new parody of Dracula, Count Spatula, a trusted friend told me that Lucy wasn't doing enough… she didn't stand out. They found her character “boring.” At first it was easy to feel like I had failed a bit, but I thought about how she fit into the play and it was true. I wasn't giving her anything special to do. Vanessa Helsing and Jonathan were both aspiring scientists and Lucy was kind of along for the ride.

I decided to revisit the source material and reimagine her as a girl very interested in chemistry. Romantic chemistry. Just adding this one detail opened the play up to new jokes and situations and put her in stark contrast to the other kids who love science.

Don't be afraid to kill your darlings.

Did I love the talking cow scene in Slow? You know I loved it. Did it need to go so the play would work? Absolutely.

I'm always skeptical of the things I love most. You should be too.

I like to print out the latest draft (and always call it latest draft, never final until you're absolutely sure). Once you have the pages in front of you, it's important to play a game of pretend. I like to pretend I have just received this script from another writer and I'm here to help them. I flip a switch in my head and go to town underlining, crossing things out, starring or highlighting things I like, scribbling thoughts in the margins. Sometimes I keep a notebook to write impressions or ideas for revision.

Assess the mess

First drafts are messy. You need to make note of what works:

Do you have strong characters with clear goals?

Does the progression of events make sense and build onto what came before it?

Are the jokes (if applicable) as funny as they can possibly be?

Is the ending earned, or are things wrapped up too easily?

Are you beginning the story too early? Getting to the action as efficiently as possible?

If something isn't working, make a list of possible solutions and don't be afraid to list dumb options. Sometimes the dumbest option will end up being the most viable.

I like to force myself to do this against a timer (whatever feels appropriate—ten minutes, fifteen maybe).

Experiment with cutting things: If it feels expendable, it probably is. If you could combine characters, play with that. If things are happening too easily, your heroes getting what they want/need too quickly, write down possible obstacles that you could introduce.

Get nitpicky about it: Do you need that extra word in that line? Is there a storytelling tangent that distracts rather than builds onto what you have? When I was rewriting my ten-minute comedy, Brace Yourself, it was essential to trim anything that the play could do without. Writing comedy is like writing music: If you have extra notes that you don't need, the whole thing will sound off. Even small words can throw off whether a line gets a laugh or not. If you have any doubt, read it aloud to a friend.

Rewrite right now

I think rewriting is best when you really attack it: The worst part is starting, so do that quickly.

If you write in Final Draft or Microsoft Word, sometimes it can be beneficial to open a new document alongside the old. For me, this allows me to give extra attention to what I'm keeping vs reimagining or removing.

If you're having trouble keeping up momentum, switch the way you're writing. If you're married to looking at a screen while you write, switch to paper and pen for a bit until you climb out of your slump.

The main problem I notice in writers who have difficulty with rewriting is they're not diligent enough. They know that they need to do it, but they put it off. They can tell things aren't working, but they don't know the solution.

It's fine not to know. But you'll never fix it unless you start.

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